DRAGLINE: Charleston, W.Va. officials dancing around police reform one year after beating of unarmed woman

EDITOR’S NOTE: This recent Dragline piece by Kyle Vass follows up on a police incident in West Virginia’s capital city in October 2019, which has dropped from the headlines. The story has not received the sustained attention it deserves and this article helps fill some of that gap, including the response by the administration of Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin. NOTE: Vass is WestVirginiaVille’s Minister of Soundwaves, offering audio and podcast advice and occasional articles. Dragline is his independent accountability reporting effort. ~ Editor Douglas John Imbrogno

KYLE VASS | Dragline | Jul. 21, 2020 | Story Edited by Lacey Johnson

Dashcam footage from Charleston Police Department Officer Joshua Mena shows the arrest of Freda Gilmore in Charleston, W.Va., Oct. 14, 2019. (Video/Charleston Police Department)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Dragline)—When Officer Jacob Mena arrived to provide backup outside a Family Dollar store on Charleston’s West Side the night of October 14, 2019, he discovered 27-year-old Freda Gilmore, facedown on the concrete parking lot, restrained by a fellow CPD officer, Carlie McCoy. Mena’s immediate response was to dart from his vehicle, drop a “tactical knee” onto Gilmore’s back, and punch her in the back of the head four times. Gilmore said the incident, which was captured by Charleston Police Department dashcam footage, left her with a broken jaw.

McCoy was driving by when she saw Gilmore and an unidentified woman involved in an altercation. When McCoy pulled into the parking lot, she got out of her police car and asked Gilmore to remove her hands from her pockets. Gilmore pulled away when McCoy tried to grab her wrists, prompting the officer to take her down and “conduct multiple strikes to the face until [McCoy] was able to secure [Gilmore’s] right wrist in a handcuff.” 

Gilmore’s wrist slipped out of the cuff, a common problem with smaller-than-average wrists. She weighed between 100 and 130 lbs. at the time of the arrest. McCoy then punched her “approximately three or four more times” to regain control. Gilmore was facedown and mounted when Officer Mena arrived and administered his own blows to the back of her head. 

Punching someone in the back of the head, a technique known as “rabbit punching,” is so dangerous that it is banned in boxing and martial arts competitions. Gilmore, who was unarmed during the encounter, was arrested and spent four days in jail with her injuries unseen by a medical professional. Because she wasn’t promptly taken to a hospital, there are no medical records to document her broken jaw and other injuries.

Community outrage

Gilmore wasn’t the only person in the parking lot to be arrested that night. Alisyn Proctor, a bystander who filmed the incident, was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct. Proctor’s arrest report states she was “warned several times to stop yelling profanities at officers and leave the scene.” In the video, a nearby security guard can be seen looking in Proctor’s direction before positioning himself in front of Gilmore, blocking Proctor from filming Gilmore and the officers arresting her. 

A bystander films the arrest of Freda Gilmore in Charleston, W.Va., Oct. 14, 2019. (Video/Alisyn Proctor)

The day after the arrests, Proctor’s cellphone footage went viral. Charleston residents took to social media to express anger over the excessive violence used to arrest Gilmore, a Black woman with intellectual disabilities. Two weeks later, the city’s then police chief, Opie Smith, announced that the two officers involved in the arrest had been cleared of any wrongdoing. 

Community outrage over the news that the officers would face no disciplinary action led to an open-forum event. The City of Charleston and the Concerned Clergies of Charleston, a community-led organization made up of religious leaders dedicated to reducing police brutality in their city, invited citizens to express their concerns at Emmanuel Baptist Church on Charleston’s West Side. Before the forum, the Concerned Clergies presented the mayor with a letter that included requests for police reform and a request that the evidence from the night in question be submitted to the FBI for a review.

Outdated, unreviewed use-of-force policy

Approximately 250 people packed the church on November 5, 2019 to ask the mayor and chief of police how the actions taken by officers in Gilmore’s arrest were acceptable. Chief Smith told the mostly Black crowd the officers did their job in accordance with the CPD’s use-of-force policy. When questioned about the last time the use-of-force policy was updated, Smith responded, “I think sometime in the 80s.”  During the meeting, concerned citizen Martec Washington, 32, asked Smith about the fairness of CPD policies, to which he responded: “We have a policy book. It’s a very thick policy book. I don’t have the time to go and review every policy that we have.”

Former Charleston Police Department Chief Opie Smith addresses a crowd of concerned citizens at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Charleston, W.Va., Nov. 5, 2019. (Video/WCHS)

Tensions rose when Smith expressed his not having time to read his own department’s policies, at which point the the crowd’s concerns and questions shifted from Freda Gilmore’s arrest to the city’s outdated policing policies. (A full video of the event is available at WCHS’s website.)

Gilmore didn’t “feel pain as much” due to mental health

On November 14, 2019, Charleston City Councilman Brady Campbell invited Sgt. Eric Smith, a former CPD sergeant and employee of the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police union in the US, to the council chambers to give a presentation on the Gilmore arrest. Campbell said he believed Smith would be someone “objective,” who “wouldn’t take a side on all of this.” 

During a 30-minute presentation, Smith’s breakdown of Gilmore’s arrest contained a number of questionable details. He said that when Officer Mena arrived at the scene, Gilmore was kicking at Officer McCoy and they were wrestling on the ground. The dashcam footage from Mena’s car, however, shows Gilmore restrained—facedown with her legs flailing—unable to kick or “wrestle” with McCoy.

Freda Gilmore is restrained by Officers McCoy and Mena in Charleston, W.Va., Oct. 14, 2019. (Video/Charleston Police Department)

Smith also said that Gilmore may have been harder to control due to her weight. “Any police officer standing in this room will tell you, I’d rather fight the big, beefy bulky guy than the skinny person,” he said.

“This is our meeting.”

Many people attending the meeting didn’t realize they would be sitting through a presentation justifying the use of force during Gilmore’s arrest. They were there to attend a press conference organized by Mayor Amy Goodwin. She was scheduled to announce that she had formally requested the FBI to initiate an investigation into Gilmore’s arrest, as well as plans for her office to work on their communication with the Concerned Clergies of Charleston.

But the mayor’s press conference had been double booked with the Fraternal Order of Police presentation, angering attendees who had come to hear about steps being taken by the city to address police brutality.

The Fraternal Order of Police takes the floor as Mayor Goodwin finishes her press conference at the City Council Chambers in Charleston, W.Va., Nov. 14, 2019. (Video/WCHS)

As Councilman Campbell took the floor to wrap up the overlapping, double-header press event, a concerned citizen in attendance named Takeiya Smith, 26, stood up and announced, “I just have to say, I don’t know how this meeting got manipulated into this narrative that [the CPD] wanted to put out there … To hijack this entire gathering is very odd.”

“I don’t know what this is,” she added, pointing around the room filled with police officers, the press, council members and a handful of concerned citizens.

Takeiya Smith speaks out as Charleston City Council member Brady Campbell draws his press conference to a close at the City Council Chambers in Charleston, W.Va., Nov. 14, 2019. (Video/WCHS)

In an interview with Dragline, Smith said, “We were told by mayor Goodwin the meeting was going to be a space for her to respond to the Concerned Clergies of Charleston.” She also said she thinks the police press conference was an attempt to make the mayor show which side of the Gilmore brutality incident she came down on—the Black community or the officers who arrested Gilmore.

“[The Fraternal Order of Police] were trying to bully her. When she got there, she took a side,” said Smith. “That meeting showed us who she was as a leader. It was a red flag, an omen to all these months of run around and no progress,” adding that, to this day, she knows the mayor has met multiple times with community leaders, but has yet to see any actual change come of it. “There have been several groups that have tried to work with her. And none of us can see any wins.”

A broken promise

A week after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, NAACP Charleston Division President Ricardo Martin wrote a letter to the mayor asking for an update on the city’s promise to incorporate the community in CPD policy reform. The mayor wrote Martin back saying that the CPD leadership team had already worked “diligently on an exhaustive review of CPD policies and procedures” and that the “comprehensive review is now complete.” 

In her letter, sent on June 19, 2020, the mayor said six CPD officers conducted a review of their own police department’s policies. The internal review fell short on a promise made in a November 14, 2019 letter from the mayor to the Concerned Clergy of Charleston, which said city officials would “engage and involve members of [the] community on [the] review team.”

The Mayor of Charleston states she will involve the community for review of police in a letter to NAACP Charleston Division in Charleston, W.Va., Nov. 14, 2019. (Letter/City of Charleston)

Councilman Campbell argues against a settlement for Gilmore

Nine months after the arrest, the City of Charleston agreed to pay Gilmore an $80,000 settlement. The city’s attorney and Gilmore’s attorney arranged for the money to be placed in a trust under the name of her uncle, who serves as her primary caretaker. 

However, the city council needed to authorize the settlement before Gilmore could be paid. At a July 6 Charleston City Council meeting, a resolution to authorize the settlement was presented to the council. Councilman Campbell said he was a “fan of this money going to a trust, rather than to an individual” and asked if the settlement money could be used “for training our police officers.” The city attorney, Kevin Baker, responded by explaining the money was for Gilmore, not the police. 

Brady Campbell serves on the City Council in Charleston, W.Va and is running for the West Virginia House of Delegates. (Photo/Brady Campbell for House WV)

Campbell, who is also running for the WV State House of Delegates, reasoned that the settlement money could be harmful to Gilmore by drawing a comparison to Jack Whittaker⁠—a notable West Virginian who suffered a series of tragic events as a result of winning the lottery. 

“He’s one of the best examples of how sometimes coming into a lot of money can have detrimental effects on somebody,” he said, before voting against the Council’s resolution to authorize the settlement. Despite Campbell’s vote, the resolution passed 25-2.

In a followup interview, NAACP Charleston Division President Ricardo Martin said he was, “disappointed in Councilman Campbell, not only for his comments regarding the settlement for Freda Gilmore, but for scheduling a Fraternal Order of Police presentation for the same time and place as the mayor’s press conference back in November.” 

On July 14, eight days after the Council authorized Gilmore’s settlement, the mayor announced the formation of a new community group, Charleston Council for Outreach and Empowerment (C-COrE), to “promote justice and fair treatment for all, by cultivating trust and confidence within the community, fostering transparency and honest communication from the administration.” Her administration, as of the date this article was published, has still not released the reformed CPD policies to the public. The mayor’s office did not respond to Dragline’s request for comment.

At the press conference announcing the launch of C-COrE, Mayor Goodwin said, “We will act strong to dismantle the lingering racism that exists in our country, our state and in the city.” As for police reform, she noted, “policing is just one slice of the pie,” and “police can’t always be the answer.” A press release issued by the city to accompany her announcement made no mention of the word “police.”

“Nothing is going to change.”

Days after the death of George Floyd, Martec Washington organized protests in Charleston every night for five weeks. A lifelong resident of the city, he says he’s spent his entire adult life trying to work with local government to make the capital a better place for everyone.

“I don’t think you should need a group to be heard by your government,” says Washington, who isn’t affiliated with any organization.

Washington says he isn’t the type of person to be easily discouraged by the city government or even the police. He’s volunteered with CPD and the Department of Justice in the past, saying he’s even tried to get people he knows personally to turn in their guns to the police. He regularly attends city council meetings to share ideas for city development and offer observations on parts of the city that aren’t accessible by wheelchair.

Martec Washing addresses the city council in Charleston, W.Va, Oct. 21, 2019. (Video/City of Charleston)

But, Washington says Charleston’s handling of the Freda Gilmore incident has been a turning point for him. He says he’s completely lost faith in the city to change any laws or policies to protect the Black community. 

“What kills me about announcing C-COrE is we’ve been out there protesting for weeks. Not once has someone from the city reached out to me. They just formed another group to give people clout and shut them up.”

Washington, like many Charleston residents, saw the video of Gilmore the day after she was beaten. He attended the open forum where then-chief Opie Smith said he didn’t have time to read all of the policies. In fact, it was Washington’s question that prompted the retired chief’s now infamous response.  He went to the City Council Chambers to see the mayor address racism last November, but, instead found himself sitting through a Fraternal Order of Police presentation on why the violence towards Gilmore was justified. 

And, when Washington tuned into that June 6 City Council broadcast, only to hear Councilman Campbell ask the mayor if there was any way to give Gilmore’s settlement money to the police, he said the silence of the mayor and the council spoke volumes. “Nobody on the City Council, including the mayor, said a word when he said those things. That was completely unacceptable.” And, one week after that meeting, he chose not to attend the mayor’s press conference on the creation of C-COrE— a rare act of civic disengagement from Washington. “Almost a year from Freda, and there’s still no change. Nothing’s going to change.”

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